I always define business as the science of creating wealth through solving society’s problems. I don’t think there any more accurate a quote to describe my mission today.
This all started three years ago, when I conducted a survey of West Philadelphia’s commercial corridors. Over 500 small businesses were interviewed, indexed and surveyed. It was an eye-opener for me, at the time, a second-year student at Drexel University, to the community that was mere blocks from campus. Exposed to the diversity of West Philadelphia, I had finally come to understand why the Mayor calls Philly, a “City of Neighborhoods”. The most important conclusion I drew from this experience – was that the best way to make progress towards solving our neighborhood’s persisting challenges of poverty and unemployment, was through entrepreneurship.
But there was a huge problem that I identified. Although there were so many community organizations, non-profits, and business associations with the same idea, there was no one to shift through all the work being done and find points for connection, partnership and collaboration. So I built one.
It’s been known by many names, the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative, the West Philadelphia Business Collaborative, and the West Philadelphia Partnership – but I always call it “The Collaborative”.
It started in August, 2015, when I invited out business leaders from West Philly business associations for a discussion. And what came from that discussion, was more than I could’ve ever anticipated. Together we formed a business improvement collaborative that organizes, connects and creates resources for residents interested in starting a business and supports existing businesses by serving as an advocate to assist businesses in getting larger contracts that will enable them grow and hire.
Today, now more than two years after that discussion, our Collaborative is the largest association of West Philadelphia businesses, including over 700 small independent businesses. We have participation from associations that represent businesses from 30th Street to 75th Street, as far south as Baltimore Avenue, and as far North as Fairmount Park and Lower Merion.
My position is to lead this coalition as its President – but for me, it’s been more of a role of connecting our neighborhoods, linking businesses and individuals working on similar projects and creating partnerships with larger entities to bring value to all involved.
In celebration of our second-year anniversary, I was asked to prepare a reflection on what would I say to someone starting out, looking for ways to build a strong community. I’ll lay out my three top critical observations I have made in my tenure for other neighborhood leaders and organizations.
First, collaboration builds community. There is strength in numbers. The very concept of a business association began with a similar premise. Business Associations form when a group of individual business owners with a common set of goals, normally involving profitability, decide to pool together their resources and knowledge for the benefit of the larger group. It has been invaluable for our participating organizations to hear from other business associations that have come up with innovative, unique solutions to similar problems. Our business associations learn from each other’s best-practices, successes and failures, showing the real benefit in collaboration. For example, I have hosted a meeting on safety and security on commercial corridors, starting with an overview of all the community-led initiatives addressing the problem, what worked and what hasn’t from each of our participating organizations, and then seeing an entirely new strategy laid out from the feedback. That new strategy included how business associations could work as a liaison with local police districts in a town-watch like initiative.
Second, educate before organizing. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with community leaders and organizations across the City. Those meetings are always filled with passionate people ready to do whatever it takes to see their communities thrive. However, I’ve also seen that organizing will never reach its full potential if the neighborhoods don’t understand how the City works. I encourage organizations and community activists to take part in programs like the Citizen’s Planner Institute and be open to search for and soliciting good speakers that have expertise in being an RCO, real-estate development, negotiating Community Benefits Agreements, the political process and powers of City and State governments.
And lastly, welcome new ideas, especially from Millennials. When I started in community work four years ago, I was 19 years old. I met leaders from every sector that immediately disregarded my thoughts, focusing on how young I was. Today my accolades include being honored by Billy Penn and being one of the youngest alumni to be inducted into my alma mater, Drexel’s 40 Under 40 and in less than a year after graduating. If my story is an example, imagine what some of our community organizations can potentially gain from being open to new ideas from young people. Who knows where they could take your organization. Another one of my favorite quotes “Every young person has the capacity to make positive change today”.
These three points are a great starting recipe for an engaged and strong community. Not a month goes by that I don’t meet a new community leader, or organization strategizing on a unique way to improve their neighborhood. Another favorite quote of mine is that no one organization, no one individual can solve the challenges that our neighborhoods face, it takes a partnership, it takes a Collaborative. After directly meeting and working with so many enthusiastic people dedicated to their community, I can only be optimistic about the future of Philadelphia. I look forward to growing our Collaborative through partnerships with new organizations and great leaders.
Jabari K. Jones is the President of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collaborative. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @RealJabariJonesPhoto: Karen Christine Hubbard via Flickr